It was almost two decades ago that Cafe Tacuba was an unsigned underground garage rock band in a distant suburb of sprawling Mexico City. Their lead singer snarled like Johnny Rotten, and their music sounded like indie-rock faves the Violent Femmes, with some funky norteno beats thrown in for good measure.
Latin Grammys go the alternative route
But on Thursday, this immensely talented and creative quartet will triumphantly take the stage of the ninth annual Latin Grammy Awards in Houston, as the leading nominees with six nominations. (The awards will be shown on the Univision network Thursday at 8 p.m. EST)
“We never even thought we’d get to record an album, much less be nominated for a Grammy,” said Cafe Tacuba lead singer Ruben Albarran. “I think the last 20 years has allowed for an evolution in the public’s taste.”
Maybe it’s more like a revolution. With six nominations (including record of the year, album of the year and song of the year), Cafe Tacuba has been recognized on a level almost unimaginable during their early stages. Their ascendancy from a band so quirky that the lead singer changed his name with every album - he currently goes by the moniker Ixaya Mazatzin Tleyotl - to Grammy favorites symbolizes Latin alternative’s arrival in the mainstream.
“It sure took us a long time to get them signed,” said longtime producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who this year received two nominations himself - for his work with Cafe Tacuba and Colombian rocker Juanes. “We didn’t even think we were going to be able to make a record, much less be in a Grammy Awards ceremony,” Albarran said.
“I was a lawyer for Warner Music in those days, and when we signed them, it was one of those things,” said Gabriel Abaroa, president of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the body that administers the awards. “They were either really going to hit it big or miss big.”
While their 2007 album “Sino” represents a slight mainstreaming of Cafe Tacuba’s sound by using a “purer” rock approach, it does veer off into long-form psychedelia and even Motown at times. In many ways, the album’s mixture of conventional and experimental approaches symbolizes the essence of the band.
“Cafe Tacuba was a big influence on me because they made me see how I could connect the different kinds of traditional and rock music that interested me and think of how I could mix them together,” said Julieta Venegas, another artist who has succeeded in crossing over from alternative to mainstream.
Venegas, who will also be a prominent performer at Thursday’s event, represents another trend in Latin music, the emergence of a new generation of female singer-songwriters. Puerto Rico’s Kany Garcia and Mexico’s Ximena Sarinana are also in the running for best new artist.
“Over the last several years we’ve seen the emergence of women who don’t fit into the older roles of singing pop or boleros,” Santaolalla said. “They’re picking up guitars and sitting at a piano and telling their stories.”
“Julieta’s music did a lot for women singer-songwriters that combine pop with alternative styles,” said Sarinana, who is nominated for her song “Normal,” from her debut album, “Mediocre” (Warner Music Mexico). “She paved the way so that nowadays it’s easier for young girls like me that do this kind of fusion. She makes record companies think twice before deciding that it’s something that’s not going to work.”
Venegas, whose “MTV Unplugged” (Sony/BMG) is a thoughtful retake on some of her best songs, began her career as an alternative firebrand with Santaolalla as her producer. “Her second album ‘Bueninvento’ was my favorite album when I was 15 - she was someone I could easily identify with,” Sarinana said.
The triumph of Latin alternative celebrated by this year’s awards show indicates that LARAS’ voting process isn’t designed to just reward commercial success. Such acts as Cafe Tacuba and Venegas are not usually high on Billboard’s Latin Album charts, which are normally dominated by Mexican regional acts such as Banda El Recodo, or Panamanian romantic reggae crooner Flex, both of whom are scheduled to perform at the awards.
“Our goal is to create a showcase for the best music, period, according to our voting members,” Abaroa said.
One of the reasons for the creation of a separate Latin Grammy Awards show is the dizzying array of different Latin music styles. Awards are given in 49 categories of voting, recognizing contemporary and traditional genres from a plethora of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations.
The lineup of performers tries to reflect as much of this diversity as possible, although some genres, like urban/reggaeton, Brazilian music and Latin jazz, will be largely overlooked.
Among the performances will be wildly contrasting acts such as pop-rock queen Alejandra Guzman, flamenco-pop singer Rosario, Mexican “banda” singers Jenni and Lupillo Rivera, and merengue diva Olga Tanon.
As a nod to the venue of the awards ceremony, local Texas favorites such as norteno accordionist David Lee Garza will perform, and a lifetime achievement award will be presented to El Paso native Vikki Carr.
“The first show, back in 2000 was trying to fulfill those Time magazine covers,” Abaroa said. “The Latino wave is coming, here it is. The only new talent discovered that time was the Brazilian singer Djavan.
“Then in the following years there was Juanes, Bebe, Maria Rita, Natalia LaFourcade. Last year it was Jesse and Joy, and Calle 13. Music stays alive because it reinvents itself and we’re going to seize the opportunity to recognize new and emerging talent.”
But those aspiring musicians who think they can emulate Cafe Tacuba’s path to success shouldn’t think it’s a matter of style. “Our style has always been no style at all,” Albarran said. “You could say that yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s pop.”
NOMINATIONS TO WATCH
1. KANY GARCIA, up for song of the year. Her debut album, “Cualquier Dia,” has yielded five singles, and her route to success went through “Objetivo Fama,” a Spanish-language version of “American Idol.” Winning a Grammy could cement her emerging stardom.
2. JULIETA VENEGAS, nominated for record of the year, song of the year, best alternative album, best long-form music video. She worked hard on her “Unplugged” album, rearranging many of her songs and using an ambitious string and woodwind section. This is her chance at superstardom.
3. JORGE CELEDON AND JIMMY ZAMBRANO, best tropical song. These Colombian performers have a chance to showcase their folkloric-pop fusion in a way not seen since countryman Carlos Vives.
4. FLEX, best urban music album and best urban song. Performing with Mexican teen pop star Belinda, Flex will be trying to raise the visibility of romantic reggae, a lite urban sound that is mostly a Central American phenomenon.
5. GILBERTO SANTA ROSA, best salsa record. One of Puerto Rico’s great salsa singers who doesn’t get as much national exposure will be out to grab the spotlight for his homeland and the genre itself.